You can’t have that word.
You don’t own this Lady.
A gift, from across the sea,
From an ally we should remember.
A shared history.
A reminder of who we are.
Out of many, we are one.
Drops of water make an ocean.
Thorns of gorse, individually, are easily pushed aside.
A bush full of them is impenetrable.
We are a nation of immigrants.
None of our ancestors had papers, when we came.
There were no quotas, no walls.
As we grew more prosperous, we forgot who we are.
The people, resourceful and strong enough to get here
Should be welcomed.
That is the only test of citizenship that should matter.
Our ancestors built a nation.
The ones who come now,
What will they build?
We need not fear what will come.
We need to look to this Lady and remember who we are.
The words written in that book she holds
Apply to everyone, or they mean nothing.
You took the swastika.
You cannot have Thor’s Hammer.
You cannot have the Runes of my ancestors.
Othala is a place we all belong
All creeds, all colors, all genders.
The Awen flows through me onto this page.
Cerridwen’s Cauldron tests our hearts and our minds,
Not our bodies, our lineages.
I place this Lady in the window,
A cheap souvenir, anyone can have one.
But her Light shines upon us all.
Travelers don’t know where they’re going,
Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.—Hostel Wall in Inverness
I saw that quote on my first trip to Britain and Ireland, and it neatly sums up my approach to traveling. I plan, loosely, but leave as much wiggle room as possible. The world has a much better idea of what I should be doing and where exactly I’ll be going than I do.
I expected to do a lot of blogging on the trip I’ve just come home from, for example. That didn’t happen, and I’ll be doing my best to make up for it now. There was too much living packed into too little time. Old friends and new, and people I wanted to see but didn’t get to. I planned carefully, but allowed for last minute changes wherever I could. Hostel reservations, for example, can be cancelled, in most cases. The few times I did get hooked for an extra night, it’s usually cheaper to book in advance and eat that cost than to try and get a bed on arrival. Train tickets, likewise, are much cheaper in advance, and a few minutes with a site like trainsplit.com will let me know which fares never change and what the difference in cost is if I book a nonrefundable fare in advance, or get a fare that can be changed or canceled. Besides, I find trip researching a particularly pleasant form of daydreaming.
My first stop was Anderida Camp, in Sussex. It was the first stop on my first trip to the UK, and it was a bit off the beaten track this time, but I was determined to return. I had missed climbing the Tump in Lewes the first time, and thanks to some time on Google Earth before I left, this time I was able to walk right to it. Thanks to some overambitious travel plans though, by the time I got there I was in a slightly altered state. I’d gotten about two hours sleep in the last 48, and had learned by then that Caffeine is Good, Food is Dangerous. I found I could function as long as I remembered that, and kept busy. It took two cabbies and an online map to figure out where camp was—I knew, but they didn’t, and I was giving directions from a different country, really. I walked in there at around hour 50, but this time all my friends were there, and I was soon set up among their tents, being fed tea, and generally having a wonderful time. I was also talking to Tony Stark by then, and by hour 55 I felt like I was surrounded by pillows. I decided I’d better sleep, and missed the opening ritual.
I woke up in the middle of the night, feeling much more grounded in reality, and went to the fire. A weekend of connection and community followed. Anderida Camp is known for Burning Things, and this camp was no exception. The firesides are also the best to be found anywhere. There was the happy-off, where we all played the happiest music we knew, and the hippy-off—well, you get the idea. A camp-wide version of the Age of Aquarius had us all on our feet. This, for me, is the heart of Druidry. Connection with people, and with the Land. Once again I felt the chrysalis around our world. It may feel as if we are dying, but it is only the old ways dissolving to make way for the new. This, I think, was one of the reasons I didn’t know why I was making the trip, or the shape of it. I still don’t, but the work I have to do is before me and the more of it I do, the clearer things become.
Maybe it was the ridiculous marathon of getting to Camp, maybe it was meant to be, but I lost the pouch with all my magical things in it somewhere along the line. Among them was my set of ogam feda. These look like a bundle of sticks, but they represent the ogam alphabet. They can be thought of as wooden tarot cards, though the system they represent is more a skeleton on which oral knowledge is hung. It is a way of memorizing such knowledge and organizing the relationships between it. The first letter, for example, is called Beith. The word means Birch, but it is also associated with Ban (white), Besan (pheasant), and beginnings. Among other things. The old Bardic schools used to teach oral knowledge, and for the first three years, students memorized 50 sets of associations for each letter. Once that structure was in place, their education continued with stories, philosophy lessons, grammar, etc. A Victorian reconstruction of a list of their studies can be found in P.W. Joyce’s A Social History of Ancient Ireland. One of the sets of associations are the different woods in the Irish forests, and modern use of this system tends to emphasize that set of meanings over the others. Accordingly, I decided to make my first set out of the woods. It took me many years to learn to recognize the trees and collect the various woods, and make the first set. It was very hard to lose it, along with my first Awen, and the pouch full of items that was attached to it, the presents I had for people, and so on. However, gone was gone. I could grieve over what were essentially things and let the loss overshadow the trip, or I could realize that I made many of the things that had been in that pouch, including the pouches themselves, and treat this as a new beginning.
I was in the land where the forest reflected the ogham. I decided to treat this as a “final exam.” The first set I’d constructed had been made by trial and error. I know more now, and can do a better job this next time. I also have a chance to make a set that is wholly from the forests of England and Wales. My first set reflected my own American state of being, being constructed from woods from several states as well as a few I could find only in Albion. My first trip gave me the last woods to complete that set.
So my trip was a chance to look closely at the forests around me and find the trees I needed. It was a chance to connect with each tree, and exchange gifts. It was a chance to create a ritual to contain that sharing, and to explore the difference between giving and theft. I didn’t have much time, and I am not completely satisfied with how I went about this task, but I did complete it, and learned a lot in the process. I came home with a forest in the form of a bundle of sticks. I know now that I can recognize every tree in the system in its natural habitat, and I have a ritual for collecting that creates connection between the gatherer and the gathered. I have seen a community in a field of Heather, and had a centuries-old Oak throw a branch at my feet. I know where each wood came from and can remember the conversation we had. Most of all, I am involved in a process, and am learning the phases of creation of a set as a set, rather than disparate woods gathered at different times. All of them came home with me as a bundle of green wood. Now I am in the process of stripping them of their bark and allowing them to dry completely. That has to happen before I can choose a size for each fid (wood), as each stave is called. I also have to decide how I will shape them this time as I no longer have access to the tools I used the first time.
Not knowing, but trusting, was a wonderful way to travel. It wasn’t all good, but neither is life. I feel as if the Land was testing me. The first two trips the red carpet was rolled out. I was cradled and protected by the Land. This time, more is expected of me. The gifts were no less munificent, and I count the tasks among them. What I lost may be the catalyst for someone else when they find what amounts to a kit for Druidry somewhere. In the meantime I have articles and songs to write, blog entries and recordings to make, and experiences to share. I have friendships and memories to sustain me here on the Shores of the Western Sea. I am blessed beyond measure by the Druids and the Land of Albion.
Some of the things I do daily are so dead simple they’re almost stupid. Filling the xerox machine with paper when it’s empty. Picking up the chunks of (clean) toilet paper people throw on the bathroom floor. Picking up bits of glass and plastic on trails and sidewalks. None of this is my job–or is it? I see it. I am therefore responsible for it, in some way. I used to go barefoot a lot, and so a long time ago I began picking up the bits of glass that scared me. I’m embarrassed to see the public bathrooms at work in such a state. I wear a uniform, so I am easily identifiable as part of the place. It isn’t my job to clean up the whole world, it isn’t possible for me to do so. However, we can all make this world we are in a little better. At the very least, we can all take care of our own mess. If we all did so, think what this world would be like…
I don’t do this stuff as part of my application for sainthood, and I’m not suggesting that you all run out right now with a trash bag and a mission. I’m just asking you to think about the place you live in, how you make it your own, and what you leave behind. What difference does your presence make each day?
We’re all part of the land. We’re literally made of earth, the food we eat, the minerals in it that are part of us, and the less savory things that we give back to it. We don’t want them any more, but to some other being, they are life itself. Have you thought about what you eat lately, really thought about where it came from, what it was when it was alive? Everything we eat was once alive, and everything that dies is only in the process of becoming someone else. This isn’t cruel, or tragic, it’s the thing that makes us all one.
In my house, we say grace. We thank the beings that grace our table, from the fruiting bodies of mycelium that we call mushrooms to the chicken that gave its very life. Acknowledging this fact brings meaning to my meal, and puts me firmly in the web of life and death. It has put chickens in our backyard and herbs on our back porch. Calling “thank you” out the window when we eat eggs, and knowing that those birds are enjoying their lives is a gift. Cleaning the chicken coop becomes a means of connection as well as a chore. It’s part of the deal of domestication.
Not all animals want to make this deal with us. No one rides zebras, for example. No one keeps seagulls for eggs–though the nineteenth century inhabitants of San Francisco probably ate them. Chickens, however, not only lay for most of the year, they share nests and stay in roughly the same place. They are birds of habit and they don’t mind living with humans. It was actually a fairly good deal for them until quite recently. They allowed humans to take their eggs, and while they didn’t get to live out their entire lifespan, on the average they lived a lot longer than their wild relatives did. In return they got protection, housing, food, and instead of living exclusively in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they now can be found all over the world. Humans got eggs and tasty meat, and the tendency of chickens to scratch and defecate made them useful in the fields as well.
The next paragraph or so is not graphic per se, but if you don’t want to think any more deeply about this subject, you might want to skip past it.
This was a great deal, but as we humans have a tendency to skip out on our chores, we eventually found a way to get out of our end of it. The ways we treat our domestic animals these days are pretty horrific. Since most of us don’t have to watch, we can ignore this, but there are consequences for us as well. It can’t be good for us to be eating creatures that spent their lives in pain, mental and physical, and died horrible deaths. Having eaten animals that I’ve taken out of life quickly and cleanly, I can tell you that a well fed, happy animal just tastes better. Knowing the whole cycle of life is empowering as well. It was an initiation in the truest sense of the word. I felt that at last I could feed my family, and that I can take responsibility for how I live. I’m not planning on giving up eating meat, after all. I also came to realize that I, too, will in the end be eaten, and I don’t fear it. I don’t want to die, of course, but I want to lay a handsome table when I do. I want to give back what I have borrowed and continue the dance of life in some other form.
I started out with trash, and I’m going to end there as well. I’ve found that when a human begins to pick stuff up, we all get three benefits. The first, of course, is simple. There’s less garbage lying around. The second is related to that–a human who picks up trash is a human who doesn’t thoughtlessly throw things around when finished with them. The third is a growing awareness, for the individual human, and for the rest of us.
As I’ve begun to listen to the land, it has gotten downright talkative. I see the most interesting things on the ground.
The land hands me trash bags. A plastic bag dangles at eye level from a tree trunk in Golden Gate Park. You can’t get any clearer than that. Brightly colored balloons form a fan on the sand in Aquatic Park. What I took for brightly colored red plastic chips on the grass turn out to be rose petals, strewn at my feet. Never let it be said that the planet is not capable of making the grand gesture of appreciation on occasion. My chickens peck bits of glass and broken china from the dirt in the yard. Many of them are quite beautiful. I may get around to making a mosaic out of them someday, but for now I save them in a terra cotta pot in the yard.
We’re all responsible for what we see. But no, we can’t do all of it. I would spend my entire day picking up trash if I tried. So I set limits. I pick up plastic, mainly in the woods and on the beach. Plastic, particularly small bits of it, scares me. It’s on its way into the food web. Sea birds fight for food, and they will eat anything that looks like it might be edible without a second thought. Many of them die with their stomachs choked with the stuff. They’re not the only animals who do this. Plastic on the ground, exposed to sunlight, becomes brittle and falls apart. It remains plastic, but the bits get smaller and smaller, leaching toxins as they do. If plastic ends up in the ocean, it floats on the current or sinks. If there are future archaeologists, I’m betting that this century will be clearly visible as a layer of plastic–or its components. We will be remembered by what we leave behind.
So if you think that somebody ought to do something about it, maybe you, like me, are that someone.